The rise of the Greens in Brighton and Hove offers lessons to those ready to dismiss UKIP’s advances too lightly
Supporters of the three main political parties in Brighton and Hove could be forgiven for thinking that the European election result locally bucked the wider regional, national and international trend. After all, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) trailed in fourth. Labour topped the poll, almost 2,000 votes ahead of the Greens and almost 5,000 ahead of the Conservatives. Almost four in ten voters took part.
But the gap between Labour in first place and UKIP in fourth was just 6,200 votes. And this from an electorate of about 200,000 in a poll where 76,000 cast a vote. UKIP tends to fare better in European elections and less well in local elections and general elections when voters tend to revert to the established parties. And some members of each of those parties have written off UKIP’s latest performance as a high-water mark.
Dismissive remarks carry echoes of the kind of verdicts delivered during the emergence of another political force in Brighton and Hove. It is worth recalling the way that local politics played out as the Greens rose to power.
Former Brighton and Hove council leader Steve Bassam – now Lord Bassam of Brighton and Labour’s chief whip in the House of Lords – saw the threat to his party. But his concerns were ignored by some who regarded the Greens in much the same way as they did the Monster Raving Loony Party.
It took 16 years from their first council seat in Brighton to becoming the biggest party and assuming office. And as they rose, Labour fell. UKIP is seen as more of a threat to the Tories. But a strong showing in the Midlands and the North suggests that at least some of UKIP’s support is drawn from disillusioned Labour voters.
“With less than 12 months until we next have a vote, there is all to play for”
Nonetheless, it seems hard to believe that UKIP will win any seats come the election for Brighton and Hove City Council next year. And it also seems likely that the biggest threat that they pose is to the Conservatives, diluting their vote. The same will be true at the general election which is also scheduled for May next year.
If, for example, Nancy Platts captures Brighton Kemptown for Labour, it is probable that she will have been helped by UKIP. The sitting Conservative MP Simon Kirby appears to recognise the risk. Part of his constituency is in the area served by neighbouring Lewes District Council. Mr Kirby will be keenly aware that UKIP attracted almost one in three votes there last month and topped the poll. The Tories came second with almost one in four votes.
Perhaps worryingly for Norman Baker, the widely respected Liberal Democrat incumbent, his party’s support wilted to about 13 per cent. The Greens finished fourth, just behind the Lib Dems. Labour came fifth. The area is not one of its traditional heartlands.
In Brighton and Hove key Labour figures were jubilant that their party’s vote had more than doubled to 20,414. Their leader Warren Morgan said that he was planning to make public the policies that he hopes will motivate voters to make a positive decision to back Labour next May. Many of his colleagues are in a confident mood.
But those forecasting a Green wipe-out will take little comfort from the party slipping to second place in the European elections. They garnered 18,586 votes, a modest drop on five years ago when they were on a rising tide and fewer than 2,000 behind Labour. The way in which their vote held up has left more than a few Greens feeling vindicated – and far from despondent. The party may not be over yet.
Lord Bassam has characterised Brighton and Hove as broadly left of centre. Certainly Labour and the Greens had the better result at the ballot box here last month. But optimist Conservatives see the left as divided even though the Greens and Labour point to UKIP’s progress as evidence of a growing split on the right. With less than 12 months until we next have a vote, there is all to play for.